Paired Test

It seems like A OUGHT to be like B…

Nora and I were at an event this weekend at the Bennington Museum, to celebrate friends who’d been important parts of that museum community as volunteers and donors. I’d never been to that museum before, so between snacks and drinks, I took a few minutes to see the exhibitions. And one of them, called Parks and Recreation, was interesting for several reasons, one of which was that I learned the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the clearing of ski trails for many of Vermont’s most popular resorts. Vast numbers of unemployed young men worked through the Depression to build roads, parks, fire safety infrastructure. To do the coarse work of clearing and grading land to make a road, and also to do the finer work of building benches, signs, cabins.

Vermont, like most of rural America, had been hit pretty hard by the Depression. And it was Federal funding that saved it… projects that were later monetized by venture capital and turned into private wealth.

We don’t often think about how much wealth has been appropriated through gaining private control over things that the public has paid for. Empires have been built on the back of Federally-subsidized railroads, and Federally-owned interstate highways. From Federally-built dams and power projects to the technological miracles of the Internet and GPS, our history is littered with men who were given a vast gift and then said “look upon what I have made!” Given our various panics over the last century, it’s a nice paradox that we now see that the native end state of capitalism is Russia, where a few dozen men own everything.

When you get to the top, don’t say we never did anything nice for you.

I raised this question in passing at one of my last live events, back in February 2020, but it’s bugging me more thoroughly today, so I’m going to place it upon you with more detail than I did before. You’re welcome.

Condition A: a moderately sized private college. (I have one in mind, but why embarrass anyone?) Annual budget: $350 million. Number of employees: 1,500. Number of constituents served: 3,000. President’s salary: $560,000, plus loads of travel money and an on-campus house, in a job that lasts as long as the Board of Trustees are happy—seven years and counting for the current occupant, ten to twenty years in historical average.

Condition B: a moderately sized city. (Okay: Burlington, Vermont.) Annual budget: about $100 million, a third of the college’s budget, and that includes running its own major police, fire, road, and airport divisions. Number of employees: 2,900, about double the college (on a third of the budget). Number of constituents served: 43,000. Mayor’s salary: $115,000, and he pays his own mortgage, and has to convince the majority of the community every three years that he should keep his job—not merely a board of a couple dozen people, but all of the adult residents, thirty thousand or more.

So explain to me again about the efficiencies of capitalism? Explain to me again about overpaid public servants feeding at the public trough? Explain to me why being the mayor of Vermont’s largest city, an enormously complex job answerable to a diverse population of over forty thousand, in the face of a vigorous independent media and an organized opposition party, should pay a fifth of the wage of a president of a comfy, well-to-do college serving three thousand children of privilege? I know absolutely and without a doubt which one of those two is harder and more complex work.

Explain to me why Jeff Bezos personally, individually made over five billion dollars last year, and fifty billion the year before. Yes, he’s smart. Yes, his business is successful, and profitable. But from the point of view of both the consumer and the worker, profit = tax. It’s as simple as that.

Actually, profit is worse than tax, because it’s a surcharge that doesn’t benefit either the consumer or the community in any way at all. It doesn’t get turned into public roads or parks, it doesn’t get turned into electrification projects or schools or bridges. Every dime that gets sucked out of a transaction and kept by the ownership is a tribute tax. It doesn’t benefit the actual worker or organization who provides the service, nor does it benefit the customer who uses the service. It’s just the emperor’s cut. Money is the only thing in the world that flows uphill.

There is no reason why the president of a major research university should make more than that state’s governor. (Don’t even start on college football and basketball coaches…) There is no reason why the president of a small state college or a private liberal arts college should make more more than the mayor of the city that hosts them. There is no reason why a CEO of anything should make more than a couple hundred dollars an hour. Think about that—think about you, personally, making $250 an hour. That’d be unimaginably fantastic, right? Now multiply that ridiculous sum by TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND and you’ve approaching the growth in Elon Musk’s net worth last year. That’s not the worth of work, that’s just a tribute to the emperor. We’ve just stopped paying attention to numbers and their meaning, and have invested ourselves fully in habit and mythology.

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